Rebecca Banks, of NYC’s Balthazar, on Rhônes and Bordeaux satellites

Rebecca Banks joined Balthazar in 2005, working with then-wine director Chris Goodhart. Today, she’s in charge of the beverage programs at all six of Keith McNally’s restaurants, including the newly opened Cherche Midi. Balthazar, opened since 1997, is the stalwart, with a 400-plus all-French list, and a clientele that ranges from tourists and families with kids to Bordeaux-drinking big shots.

From Picpoul to Sancerre
People tend to start with a glass of white, or maybe they order a bottle of white, then glass of red. We have a lot of families that come in; I think in some ways, white maybe seems less “dangerous.” Also we do lot of business at lunch and brunch.

We’ve tried picpoul in the past; it’s not a super popular category, but it’s a quintessential French bistro white; and I’d been talking about putting it on by the glass for a long time. I finally did it. Anything you put on by the glass, people see it—sometimes it’s the only thing that they see; they don’t even look at the list. So people are more apt to try it.  And it’s terrific. I brought in the winemaker—a female winemaker, and she’s so excited to have the wine on the list. It’s easy, versatile wine, like Muscadet from the south.

Sancerre always was and still is our best seller by the glass. It’s not waning—no, not at all. At Balthazar, we have a couple higher-end Sancerre on the list, at $70 and $110; then we list a magnum and another bottle over $120 on the reserve list; we reorder all of those regularly. I think it’s just a very recognizable category. People don’t always associate Sancerre with sauvignon blanc; they just know that they’ve had Sancerre before and liked it. I might wish people try something else from the Loire—and chenin’s popular, Vouvray in particular. The Vouvray Sec from Foreau is $65, so it’s at a nice price point. And Anjou and Savennières sells to certain people—but in general I don’t hear people asking for it. They want Sancerre. It’s like Châteauneuf-du-Pape. People hold on to categories they know and like. It makes sense. At $50 to $100 for a bottle, it’s an investment. Even if I go to a restaurant, I feel that.

On Gigondas and the Rhône
We’ve had Gigondas by the glass for three or four years now, and it’s become more popular over the years; it’s a wine where we can say, if you like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you’re going to like Gigondas—it’s the same grape, similar area. Only recently we put a Châteauneuf-du-Pape on by the glass—it was right before the holidays. It was $25 a glass—we don’t normally do that, but we figured, what the heck, let’s try it. And it sold. We just 86’d it last night. Before that, the Gigondas [Grapillon d’Or] was the most expensive by the glass pour we had. Maybe it does well because we have only French wines on the list. There are no New World wines competing for the style. If someone is asking for fuller bodied malbec, we suggest this.

Satellite Power
Bordeaux has always been our most popular red category, even when Bordeaux wasn’t cool. And Balthazar, well, it’s not Dirty French {link: http://www.dirtyfrench.com/ ]…But in the last year I’ve been able to add more and more wines from places like the Côtes de Franc and Côtes de Blaye, and of course the satellites of St-Emilion and Pomerol. It’s really exciting—there’s really great quality, a lot of organic estates, some biodynamic, and the bottles still say Bordeaux so people still recognize the wines as quality even though they aren’t so expensive. And they tend to be more approachable, ready to drink now. When you get into the high end, vintage becomes more of the conversation, but I have satellite wines from 2011, 2006, 2005 drinking well, and they are at a price point where they are meant to be drunk young. There’s no snobbishness about the vintages and the price. People are just like, ‘Oh, Pomerol for $40. Great.’

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